CHENNAI: When it comes to progress, very few states in the country can match Tamil Nadu. From education, industry to socio-economy, the state marches healthily ahead of others. But not in the case of manual scavenging, and government figures are alarming. It says 209 deaths were recorded in the State over the last two decades, out of which one-third were in and around Chennai.
Surprisingly, despite pressure from various NGOs and courts, Tamil Nadu denied to pay the `10 lakh compensation to families of deceased manual scavengers, especially ones who died in septic tanks and on private premises. Even Supreme Court order has been ignored. Instead, `3 lakh was given as ex-gratia. Only in case of deaths in public places did TN give `10 lakh.
Out of the 209 deaths, 141 families received their rightful compensation, while 22 remain untraceable. The rest are yet to receive their due.
“These figures are based only on newspaper reports. The actual numbers are two or three times higher,” said A Narayanan, director of CHANGEindia, a Chennai-based organisation which took up the issue legally.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 ordered States to survey the total number of manual scavengers in its jurisdiction to enumerate and rehabilitate them.
Tamil Nadu has low numbers, as officials from the Municipal Administration Department refused to accept self-declaration forms. The Madras High Court ordered a re-survey which, the State hasn’t taken up until date, citing elections and current political situation as reasons.
While the government claimed there were only 377 manual scavengers in TN, private studies which CHANGEindia and Safai Karamchari Andolan (SFA) took up suggested that the actual figures were four times as high.
“The government has not taken up prevention or rehabilitation seriously,” said V Samuel, the State Convener from Safai Karamchari Andolan.
The Prohibition Act’s Section 4(1)(a) also demands that the government carry out a survey of insanitary latrines where deaths have been reported. State Government figures suggested that 94,389 insanitary latrines were identified. However, there were serious discrepancies in data collection by various corporations, which were proven in court.
“Almost all town panchayats had claimed that no night soil (human excrement) had been disposed into open drains, and that there was no open defecation. It proved to be a sham. Also, urban local-body officials who undertook the survey had no clarity on definition of insanitary latrine,” said Narayanan.
Efforts to rehabilitate manual scavengers have been less than satisfactory. Only 360 photo ID cards were issued by Chennai Corporation, and the status of other local bodies remains unknown. One-time cash assistance of `40,000 was given only to 253, that too through National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, and not the State Government.
All other measures specified in the Act, such as scholarship for their children, allotment of residential plot, financial assistance to construct house, training in livelihood skills, along with monthly stipend for at least one member of the family, subsidy and concessional loan for alternative occupation and legal assistance remains a non-starter in Tamil Nadu. Narayanan added that crucial hitches in use and appropriateness of machines had also not been addressed.